100% Arabica (Not!)

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New research looks at fraud in the coffee supply chain:  in checking 60 samples of “100% Arabica” coffee, researchers found 6 had significant amounts of low-cost robusta blended in–in one case 1/3 of the coffee was robusta.

Statistically this indicates that anywhere from 5 to 20% of all coffee may be subject to this type of fraud.  And robusta-to-arabica mixing may be the tip of the iceberg, since these two strains are often not in close proximity until late in the supply chain.  Equal or greater may be arabica-to-arabica mixing, where a high-priced specialty-grade arabica is “extended” with a lower-grade substitute.

At GeoCertify we know from years of experience that coffee substitution is likely whenever there is a price differential–the bigger the price difference, the more likely an expensive coffee will be extended or replaced.

Who pays the price?  Small-holding farmers.

This is why GeoCertify implements “unit-level traceability”–tagging individual bags of coffee and tracking them through the supply chain.  It’s not foolproof, but it does tilt the underlying economics of fraud.

Otherwise, it’s a tough issue:  simpler approaches to traceability, such as “ledger-based” or “mass balance,” have little to offer:  contracts and bills of lading can only be taken at face value.  And once this data is stored in an immutable blockchain, it acquires an added veneer of credibility.  Advocates tend not to emphasize the problem and scope of substitution.  If pressed, there may be a reference to “segregated supply chains,” which unfortunately are neither feasible nor effective.

There are also testing protocols, such as DNA testing, or the new method for detecting Robusta in a blended coffee that prompted this post (Food Chemistry, Volume 248, May 15, 2018.)  Given the cost and capacity of these high-tech solutions, they are still clearly far short of the pace and scale of the coffee industry at full bore.  The test for robusta reported here, for example, announces they’ve cut the testing time from 3 weeks to 3 days, using an NPM machine that lists for $125,000.

Nevertheless, these testing methods are extremely important.  At some point, they will bear fruit as cost-effective field tests.  And in the meantime, they will help small farmers and high-quality traders by continuing to shine a light into some of the shadowy corners of the coffee supply chain.


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